Nothing’s been easy for Derrick. Even now with a big change occurring, nothing is certain.
The group that had been involved in the talk with Mrs. McKinley—Mr. Scott, Jake, Jeremy, Gary and Nelson—were sitting on Mr. Scott’s patio. Mr. Scott was having a beer, the rest lemonade. They had all wanted to talk about what had happened, so Mr. Scott had had Jake call them all and arrange to meet after dinner. He’d made an apple pie, and knowing teenagers, then made a second one. Both pies had been devoured like no one had eaten in a month, although they’d all had dinner less than an hour before. He shuddered, thinking of them having lemonade with apple pie, but they hadn’t seemed to notice the way the two didn’t fit together. He himself had had coffee with his pie. Afterward, the boys had continued with the lemonade. He’d had to make a second pitcher. He’d switched to beer.
The threat of Nick’s suspension or expulsion had disappeared after Mr. Scott’s speech and surprisingly, an apology had been issued. Then Mrs. McKinley had thanked them for coming in, and she told them she’d meet with Grady on Monday, assuming he was back in school then. After that, everyone had gone home.
Now, at Mr. Scott’s house, there was a consensus with the group of kids: Grady should be expelled and good riddance. They all could easily accept that; it would be a done deal. So that wasn’t what they wanted to talk about. Instead, they all wanted to hear about how Nick, a little less than three-quarters Grady’s size, had not only stood up to him but had put him in the hospital. Word was he was being kept overnight to check for concussion.
Jake was feeling, well, ‘weird’ seemed to cover it, but he thought his vocabulary ought to supply a better word and realized the problem in coming up with one was that he wasn’t sure what he felt. It was complicated. He knew how he’d felt in general in the recent past. He’d liked being separate from the pack. Thinking about it, though, he realized that was probably a defensive posture he’d taken. Circumstances had forced him to be apart, and it just made sense that he had found a way to take the sting away, to justify his aloneness as something he liked and take pleasure in it. He did remember being happy when he’d had friends and was part of things back before his problems at home had grown to a point he could bear them no longer.
Now, he was being treated as one of the other boys on the patio and also as someone they were looking up to. Jeremy had gone on, as was his wont, about how he’d have been in the hospital instead of Grady if Jake hadn’t saved his ass. He’d blushed when he’d said ass and glanced at Mr. Scott, who just smiled. The other boys had made a fuss about Jake stepping into the fray as well and how much courage it had taken with Grady being who he was. They all, eventually, were asking the same thing: how in the world had he been able to do what he’d done?
And so Jake was left feeling weird. He was enjoying the new-found camaraderie. He was also wondering if he should lower his guard. It seemed safe to do so here, and he knew if he wanted to maintain this new feeling of joining with others, of being part of a group, of having friends, this was the place and time to take the first step.
It was scary. That first step would involve talking about himself. Laying his life open. But he didn’t want to lose the weird feeling, either.
He decided the benefits outweighed the risks, and after all, he could keep some things private and be a little flexible with the truth. Besides, wouldn’t he be leaving sometime in the future, perhaps soon?
“Yeah, tell us, Nick.” That was Gary. Jake still felt stirrings looking at him. At school, after Jeremy had gotten the clean tee-shirts, Jake had changed into his, then found Gary in the crowd and handed him the last one. Gary had looked at the shirt, then at Jake, and blushed. Jake had seen how Gary had a problem making and keeping eye contact with him. Jake thought that might be a sign. A very good one.
So Jake was faced with opening up, with joining the world these kids enjoyed, and he gave in. He had to make sure first that they all hated Grady and were happy with what had happened to him. They assured him they were all delighted that Grady surely would be expelled, and they were behind him totally for having made that happen.
So he began. “Mr. Scott knows about some of this. For a time recently I was basically living on the streets in a city back East. My parents were squabbling, and it kept getting worse. Then my father was out of the picture, and my mom couldn’t get it together, so I left home. Then Mr. Scott, my mom’s brother, stepped in and brought me here to live with him.
“Anyway, I had some adventures, both good and bad, while I was on the streets. Living outside is very unsafe for a kid, and I was just a normal kid, not able to take care of myself at all. Eventually, you get in trouble that way; there are always people looking for weaker people to take advantage of. Here’s what happened to me.
“I was still going to school, sometimes sleeping at a friend’s house, sometimes at home but not often, just sleeping and eating where I could, some of the time out in the open. Parks are good places; so are abandoned buildings. Both are dangerous, of course, because that’s where predators know kids will be crashing.
“So, I’m in one of the parks one night, I think I was 13 then, having slept under a bench that was sort of out of the way, and when I wake up, early like you do if you’re on the streets, there’re two guys standing there looking at me. I’d guess they were nineteen, twenty, maybe a little older. Street kids, too, by the looks of them. I was immediately scared and thinking about how to get away from them. But I was under the bench, and there was no way I could move out quickly enough to escape from where I was trapped.
“One of them says to the other, ‘You want a piece of that?’ and the other rubs his crotch and says, ‘You hold him and keep him from screaming,’ and that gives me the idea. I scream as loud as I can.
“One of them drops down and puts his hand over my mouth to stop me. I bite his hand and roll out from under the bench, roll out away from where the two are standing. The one who’d been rubbing his crotch steps up onto the bench, jumps over it and grabs my arm. My mouth is still free, and I scream again.
“The guy holding my arm slugs me in the stomach to stop the screaming. I suddenly can’t breathe; things seem to slow down, and the guy slaps me hard across the face. Everything gets kind of sparkly, and my ears are ringing. The guy holding my arm is the only reason I’m staying on my feet. ‘No more screaming,’ he says. He looks at his partner who’s now standing up and says, ‘Pull his pants down.’ The guy comes around the bench to where we are and reaches for my waist to unbutton my jeans, and the guy holding me is opening his fly when we all hear another voice.
“‘What the fuck? What is this?’
“I’m still feeling a bit woozy but can see who spoke. It’s a kid my age, and I immediately forget about being saved. The kid actually is a little smaller than I am, and I’m not very big. I’m still so scared, I don’t think I could run even if I had the chance. Both the older boys are considerably bigger and much rougher looking. They glance at each other briefly, and I see them smile. ‘One for each of us,’ the crotch-rubbing fly-opener holding me says.
“I somehow know there’s no point, but I yell, ‘Help! They’re going to rape me.’ I don’t know what I expect the kid to do. Run away and find someone who can help, I guess. Anyway, I yell that, and the kid doesn’t run away. Instead, he walks toward us and says, ‘Let him go.’
“The unbuttoner smiles, not a friendly smile but an opportunistic one, leaves me and takes a quick step toward the kid. He reaches out to grab him. My head is still ringing, and my cheek is hurting, so maybe that accounts for the fact I don’t quite catch what’s happening, but the big guy is suddenly on the ground and after a quick screech of pain is holding his wrist and moaning. The little kid is now walking toward the crotch-rubber and me like nothing just happened. He again says, ‘Let him go.’ I’m surprised that a kid that size can put so much self-assurance in his voice.
“The crotch-rubber looks uncertain, but he does let me go. I want to run off, but my legs feel shaky, and something inside of me tells me I can’t leave the kid to get murdered by this guy. So I just stand there. Maybe once the murdering starts, I can jump on the guy’s back or something. Anyway, I don’t need to do any jumping because the big guy goes after the little guy and ends up on the ground, too, making the same noises as the other big guy.”
Jake stopped for a moment, looking at all the faces. They were all looking back. No one made a sound.
“So, that’s how I met Kim. He went to the same school I went to. He was out jogging early, before school, which I learned was something he did every day. Turned out he was a fitness nut, which made sense because his dad owned a gym. His dad taught martial arts, specializing in judo. He had other men to teach other disciplines like Tae Kwon Do and Karate and Aikido. Kim had been learning them all since he was six.
“Kim had never used what he’d been learning before outside a gym; this was the first time he’d been in a fight for real. But the training had made him confident, so confident he wasn’t even nervous. He’d put those two guys down like it was nothing. I, on the other hand, was a mess. It was still early, so he took me back to his house, and his mother put an ice bag on my cheek and checked my mouth and teeth and said I was fine. By then, my head had cleared up and, other than having a sore face and a bruised stomach, I was fine.”
“What happened to the two guys, Nick?” Jeremy asked. Jake smiled. He guessed it had been too long since Jeremy had spoken and that he couldn’t help himself.
“I don’t know. Never saw either of them again. Anyway, that’s not part of this. This was just how I met Kim. We became good friends. I ended up sleeping at his house many times. I think his mom would have let me stay there all the time, but I’d already been on my own for a bit by then, and I didn’t want to give up that independence. But, more to the point, his dad began training me. I spent most afternoons at his gym, learning the basics of several disciplines and doing weight training. I decided right after what had happened in the park that I had hated feeling so weak and unable to defend myself. Now, I had the opportunity to learn how, and I took advantage of it; I trained as hard and often as Kim did. They didn’t charge me, either. I was a friend of Kim’s, and that was all that mattered to them. Kim and I became best friends. They moved away when I was 14. Moved to California because his dad got a business offer that made the family wealthy. Something to do with working with actors. I still miss Kim.”
Jake poured himself another glass of lemonade and took a drink of it before resuming. “You wanted to know how I was able to defend myself from Grady. Well, that’s how. I can’t begin to say how many training bouts I had at that gym, facing off with all sorts of opponents. Big and little, fast and slow, smart and stupid. When you’re doing that almost every day, you stop being afraid. You get hit and learn the world doesn’t end because of it and that you gotta keep fighting after getting hit and how to use the pain to increase your focus. You learn to watch opponents, evaluate them, and doing that, you almost always can figure out what your defense is going to be before they take their first step toward you.
“I trained hard and learned a lot. I also gained a lot of self-confidence I’d never had before. You’re scared when you start sparring with an opponent, but after a time, you learn to control your emotions, and you learn how to think clearly, to evaluate your opponent, to plan how to counter his attack. With all that going on, fear is no longer a factor.
“I got pretty good after a while, and getting bigger with age helped, too. Bigger and stronger. If you’re strong, self-confident and experienced, even an opponent as big and tough as Grady doesn’t scare you.”
He looked around at the boys who were riveted on his story, making eye contact with each. “You might find this difficult to believe, but Grady didn’t look all that formidable to me. I could tell just from his body language, the way he was breathing, the attitude he was projecting that he was both angry and way overconfident. He wasn’t planning what he was going to do, wasn’t paying much attention to me and how I was reacting to his threat at all. There were a bunch of different things I could have done with Grady. But I wanted to do something where I wasn’t involved in a fight with him. I wanted all the aggression to be his; I wanted to seem to be completely on the defensive when he attacked and not responding to it offensively at all. It wasn’t hard for me to figure out how to stop him quickly without appearing to do anything but duck.
“On the football field, he’d been trained to run toward and into opposing players, to use his weight against them. He was obviously good at that, and I was sure that’s what he’d try against me. Advantage, Nick!”
He smiled as the others laughed. “I did have to set it up a little. First, I had to get him to move back so he’d have enough space to get up some speed when he charged me. Then, I had to quickly get in position to push him after I’d ducked. That was the most difficult thing I had to do. I ducked and twisted at the same time, made it look like I was grabbing at him, trying to catch hold of his shirt to slow him down; that’s what I told Mrs. McKinley I did. In fact, what I did was give him just enough of a shove as he ran past me and be a little off-balance and run into the lockers.”
“You pushed him?” Mr. Scott asked.
“Not hard, but yeah. I did want his face to get acquainted up close and personal with the lockers. I thought that would put an end to the fight rather quickly. It did.”
= = =
Ricco had driven into Reston in the early evening. That was the best time for him. The less daylight where he could be seen, the less chance of people seeing his face clearly and remembering they’d seen him.
He had some things to do right off the bat. He didn’t want to stay at a hotel, and bed-and-breakfasts were just about as bad. There’d be records of his being there, even with an assumed name. Many hotels now had video cameras at reception, and he needed to avoid them. So, his second order of business was to find a place to stay where he’d be seen by as few people as possible, mostly be anonymous and not remembered.
First, though, he had to change license plates. It was something he did every day. He needed a local plate. Easy enough to get one.
He drove around, staying at the speed limit, getting a feel for the town. He located the high school and checked out the neighborhoods adjacent to it, thinking he’d have a chance to encounter Derrick/Jacob if he watched when school was out tomorrow. He continued driving and spotted a shopping mall and a three-story parking structure next to it. He drove in and up to the top floor. The place was about a third full. He drove till he found what he was looking for, an older car that hadn’t been washed recently parked a little away from several other cars. He parked close by it, got out and removed the plates on his car, something that took him about thirty seconds with his battery-operated screwdriver. Then he walked over to the car he’d spotted, and after looking around and seeing no one, swapped his plates for the ones on the car. In less than a minute, he was back on the city streets.
Now it was time to find a place to stay. He drove to the seedier part of town he’d passed through on his way in. He found a bar that he recognized as one on the lower end of the scale and went in. The place was about half full. Beer seemed to be the choice of drinks here. What he didn’t see were any single women. Without stopping, he walked back outside and looked for another place.
In the third bar he tried, he found what he was looking for. The bar only had four men sitting at it. There were booths, and two of them had women. Two women were sitting together in one, and a single woman was in the other. Ricco sat at the bar and ordered a martini.
Eventually, the single woman walked to the bar, saw what Ricco was drinking, and said, “Emm. That looks good.”
“It is. The barkeep seems to know what he’s doing. Hardly any vermouth. Can I get you one?”
The woman smiled. “Thought you’d never ask.”
An hour later, Ricco was driving her to her place. She said she’d taken a taxi there and was planning on taking one home because she knew she’d be over the limit. She’d accomplished that. Ricco had found out enough of her life’s story to know she was perfect. She lived alone; when she needed company—which Ricco interpreted correctly to mean ‘wanted sex’—she’d go to a bar and usually find someone to go home with.
They had sex, and Ricco was allowed to stay there that night. After the sex, the woman had fallen asleep. Ricco got up and went into the living room, turned on his laptop, followed the directions he’d gotten and got into the school’s database. In the student register’s search function, he wrote Derrick Winters. The name wasn’t in the file. Ricco smiled and changed his request to Jacob Delgado. He didn’t smile when that came back blank. He then tried Jake Delgado, and then simply Delgado by itself. There were no entries for any of those names.
Ricco had to think. He decided his first thought, to call back to NY and get someone to squeeze Mildred again for the name, wouldn’t be wise. Telling anyone in the family he was having a problem might not be in his best interest. The family had little tolerance for problems, and they had a tried-and-true method of solving the ones they encountered: they hired people like himself to take care of them. They could just as easily decide to end this one by acing Ricco as they could going to the trouble of hitting up Mildred again. In fact, it made sense that Mildred might not even know the name Derrick was using and that they’d feel their risk was higher messing with her than with Ricco. Besides which, he was sure what she’d told him was what she thought to be true. It was likely at some point that his name had been changed. That was much easier than changing his location.
Yes, thinking about it from his own perspective, Ricco thought that his bosses were more likely to eliminate him than play around with this. They had too much to lose not to tie off messy loose ends the fastest way they could. So, he couldn’t tell them about his quarry not being in the school’s database.
Instead, he needed to see if he could find Derrick/Jacob on his own. He knew what the boy looked like. He knew where the high school was. Shouldn’t be that difficult to find him.
He could deal with Mildred and her kids himself when he was done in Reston. Maybe she’d told him the truth as she knew it. Still, no reason not to have a little fun and set an example. There’d be a mention in the paper that one of the family members who was discovered brutalized and dead had worked for WITSEC. In the future, that could only make other approaches more successful.
= = =
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